This region is a study in contrasts. The forested mountain ranges of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma that shadow the coastline trap moist ocean breezes that then fall as rain on the verdant area known as the Garden Route. Meanwhile, these same mountains rob the interior of water, creating the arid semi-deserts of the Little and Great Karoo. Even within these areas, however, there is significant variety.
The Garden Route, which generally refers to the 208-km (130-mile) stretch of coastline from Mossel Bay to Storms River, encompasses some of South Africa's most spectacular and diverse scenery, with long beaches, gentle lakes and rivers, tangled forests, impressive mountains, and steep, rugged cliffs that plunge into a wild and stormy sea. It’s this mix that has earned the Garden Route its reputation for being one of the most scenic routes in South Africa. Though the ocean may not be as warm as it is in KwaZulu-Natal, the quality of accommodations tends to be far superior and the atmosphere more tranquil.
The Garden Route also offers great variety for all ages. The backpacking crowd loves it for its great beaches, adventure activities, and accessibility, whereas more sophisticated visitors revel in the excellent seafood, scenery, golf courses, and superior guesthouses and hotels—many with attached spas—where pampering is the name of the game. A Garden Route trip also makes a fabulous family vacation destination, where little ones can frolic on a beach, visit an animal sanctuary like Monkeyland or Birds of Eden, or go for a magical forest walk. Few would wish to pass up the opportunity to see whales and dolphins. With numerous guided, catered, and portered multiday hikes and loads of pretty day walks, the Garden Route is ideal for avid ramblers.
A trip into the Little Karoo in the interior, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of what much of South Africa's vast hinterland looks like. This narrow strip of land, wedged between the Swartberg and Outeniqua ranges, stretches from Barrydale in the west to Willowmore in the east. It’s a sere world of rock and scrub, famous for its ostrich farms and the subterranean splendors of the Cango Caves. Unlike more classic safari destinations, the Little Karoo’s treasures are not handed to you on a plate. Scour the apparently dry ground to spot tiny and beautiful plants. Hike into the hills to admire the fascinating geological formations of the Cape Fold Mountains and to look for rock art. Or simply pause and drink in the space and the silence. Also special to the Little Karoo are the many dramatic mountain passes that traverse the mountains to the coast or even deeper into the interior, the most famous and precipitous of these being the Swartberg Pass between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert.
The national parks of Wilderness, Knysna, and Tsitsikamma, once separate entities, are now part of the Garden Route National Park. Each area offers a distinct experience from lakeside to forest to dramatic shoreline.